Tolkien and Theology: Eternal Life

I have what is likely too many ideas for this particular series, so I thought I’d start with what I’m thinking about at the moment. I’d also like to offer a disclaimer – if you aren’t interested in Tolkien, Middle-Earth, etc. at all, skip this. If you have not read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion at least by Tolkien, some of this will not make a lot of sense. I’m assuming some familiarity, but will try to explain things clearly so everyone will get something out of this series. Also, always know that I am simplifying what I talk about a great deal. Always assume that hundreds of pages are being condensed into a few paragraphs when I talk about Tolkien.

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Life and death are central themes of all of Tolkien’s works. The very nature of the world as it is created presents deep questions about life and death. The Elves, the First Children of Illuvatar (read: God) are immortal. They can only die by violence or by grief. Otherwise, they will live on forever at the peak of their power and vitality. Galadriel, for example, is over ten thousand years old when she appears in The Fellowship of the Ring – she was alive when there wasn’t even a sun and moon yet, but the world was lit by the shining fruit of two sacred trees, and before by the stars alone.

Men, on the other hand, the Second Children of Illuvatar, die. They are fragile in every familliar way. In fact, death is described as Illuvatar’s gift to Men – they alone of the conscious creatures inhabiting Middle-Earth are able to, through death, leave the confines of the world and travel…elsewhere. It is never said where they go, or how they arrive there, or what happens next. Tolkien leaves mortality a great mystery, which is one of the things I appreciate about mythopoetical work.

In the portion of the Silmarillion called the Akallabeth, this question of death and immortality is brought to a head. There has arisen a race of Men called the Numenoreans. They are the peak of human capacity in every way – in warfare, in craft, in exploration, in intelligence, etc. They are granted an island to live upon, and continue to develop their advanced civilization there.

Over time, however, they come to love their lives too much. They seek ways to live longer and longer, and they begin to fear death and nothing else. They build massive tombs and learn to preserve bodies and are always motivated by the fear of their own mortality.

This fear becomes so acute that the Numenoreans come under the influence of Sauron (yes, the Dark Lord from the Lord of the Rings). Sauron knows he can’t overcome them openly – they’re too powerful – so he corrupts them from within. He plays on their fear of their own mortality, and in the space of a few generations he is able to convince them to sail West to the Undying Lands and wrest eternal life from the Valar (who are essentially powerful angels or servant-gods of Illuvatar).

So a few faithful Numenoreans sail East to Middle-Earth (Aragorn is a distant desecendent of these) and many sail West to challenge the gods and escape their mortality. The result is the downfall of Numenor. For their hubris, the Numenoreans are thrown down and their island is devoured by the earth and covered by the sea, their civilization wiped out forever.

Now, what does this say to me theologically? That eternal life should be something other than the understandable, but selfish and unnatural, desire to prolong my own life as I know it now. That grasping is rooted in a fear of death, and death is part of life, as trite as that sounds. It is rooted in the desire to be strong, to be young, forever, rather than to succumb to time and age, to nature and mortality.

It also says a great deal about trust. What happens when mortals die is not dealt with in Tolkien’s writing – it is only said that they depart, and that no one, not even the Elves or the Valar, know where they go. This is Illuvatar’s design from the beginning – that death be a final mystery.

Could we say that death was part of God’s design from the beginning? Scripturally, I think it is justifiable. Death is depicted as entering creation through the Garden of Eden, but a creation that remains in Eden is hardly a creation at all. When God allows choice, then drama arises on a cosmic scale. When God makes creation free, even in part, then there is jeopardy and triumph, gain and loss, sin and repentance. When God allows the chance of death, then I think God allows a chance at meaningful life as well.

Is death then an evil? In faith we affirm that it is not an ending, but like the Numenoreans, like every being conscious of its own mortality, we can’t be sure what comes after. Like Tolkien, I’m not motivated to get into the details of what I think comes next. For me, the challenge is in coming to see it as a gift rather than a curse, as something to be accepted rather than feared and hated. It is hard to learn to let go.

13 thoughts on “Tolkien and Theology: Eternal Life

  1. I would caution you against referring to the story of the fall as a fortunate thing. To say that it is metaphorical is not to say that it means nothing. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if I say, “My heart is broken,” I am indeed being metaphorical, but it would be nonsense to interpret that as meaning, “I would like some toast.”As for death, I would say that it is and is not an evil. That is, human death is very clearly established as the result of sin. Yet it is also the means by which the world is saved. It’s a paradox, and yet it makes sense in an odd sort of way. “He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.” “Unless a seed go into the ground and die…”We share in Christ’s death. “To be with Him and share in His eternal life, we must be willing to serve and follow – even unto death.” We put to death that selfish and unnatural desire to continue as we are, and beyond is the gates to paradise. I again quote C.S. Lewis: “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”

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  2. I’m not sure – I might still say that the “Fall” was a fortunate thing. If not morally good, then fortunate in terms of narrative and myth. Maybe I mean necessary – without the “Fall”, we don’t know good and evil, and therefore none of our decisions really mean anything. There’s very little story before the “Fall”. Similarly, thinking of my present life stretched out forever without death, I think it would lose meaning – like it does for Elves, given enough time.Given the choice, I’d choose to Fall over staying in the Garden. Insofar as my choice means anything.And Heaven isn’t Eden – Heaven is often depicted as a new Jerusalem, or a new creation – not the primordial garden only, but everything that came after.Might it be that in Christ, death is redeemed? What is the saying, “whatever is not assumed is not redeemed”? Christ assumes death. Anyway. Interesting.

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  3. As for what might have happened had humanity never fallen, we have no way of knowing. Certainly the world would be very different if we had never been cast out of the metaphorical Garden. I do not think it would have lost meaning, though. It’s easy to imagine our own lives stretched out endlessly into the future. It’s not easy to imagine what sort of life an unfallen being might have had, stretched endlessly out into the future, and I think it is a mistake to assume that it would be anything like the result of our present condition being rendered endless. As far as Heaven not being Eden – you are correct. Whatever else we may say about it, the New Creation appears to be something that is very different (though not totally different, as if the example of the risen Christ is anything to go by, it still involves corporeal bodies that seem to function in relation to time and space) from even the unfallen Old Creation.

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  4. Doug,I think you hit it there in your last comment – in Christ death is redeemed.I go back and forth on this issue, because I think that, from a mental health standpoint it is correct to approach death as “just another transition”. The Buddhists have it right in many ways when it comes to achieving peace in this life. Christianity, doesn’t seem to point toward peace “in this life” however. It does seem to point beyond – not in a “heaven” sense, but in a “new creation” sense. Death is described as the last enemy of God and I think it is an enemy. If God is love, if God is relational, then death is the enemy because it marks an end to relationship. Whatever is beyond death, those still on this side don’t get to be in relationship with those who have passed.This is why I say that you hit the nail on the head when you said “Christ redeems death”. Christ loves his enemy (death) and thus introduces the possibility of relationships beyond the grave. Hence, in the church we are always the gathered community of saints living and dead.

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  5. I just wanted to mention that I really like the phrase “Given the choice, I’d choose to Fall over staying in the Garden.”Would your really? Would you even know that there was a choice to make if you hadn’t been exposed to the option of that kind of choice?Just curious. I’ve been listening to the unabridged LOTR audiobooks at work. Being able to read most of my waking hours has greatly improved my moon lately.

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  6. Aaron: as the mythical story is presented, the choice of whether to eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil is presented as a real one. Or, at least, the conclusion of the story doesn’t seem forced, though it may be foregone.So I think that, internally to the story, Eve and Adam are aware of what they’re doing, to some degree anyway. At least, they are aware of choosing between obeying God’s command and giving in to their own curiosity.I’ve never been the kind of person who will take a command over curiosity…

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  7. Doug,Have you read <>Morgoth’s Ring<> from the Middle Earth Histories? I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read excerpts of one of it’s essays. Ralph Wood, in his book <>The Gospel According to Tolkien<>, quotes from “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (“The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”), which touches on the issues you’ve addressed in your fine article.Apparently, death was an evil created by Melkor, intended to destroy the harmony between body (hröa) and spirit/soul (fëa). The ancient belief of the first Men was that this harmony could only be reestablished by Ilúvatar entering bodily into the life of Arda. The Christian notion of the Incarnation clearly underlies the argument Tolkien pens for Andreth.How might that relate to your idea that Christ redeems death (an idea, by the way, that I find intriguing).

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  8. Mark: that’s on the list of about thirteen or so Tolkien-related books that I’ll read as soon as I’m independently wealthy and don’t have to work. 🙂What I know I draw from a few of Tolkien’s letters (I haven’t read them all) and his published works such as the Silmarillion. In S death is depicted as Illuvatar’s gift to the Second Children – Men. Dwarves reincarnate, essentially, and some Elves reincarnate while others travel to the Uttermost West to live among the Valar for essentially eternity (“until the world is changed”).In S Melkor is more attuned to the emptiness that lies outside of Arda (the created world) and it is that darkness/void that teaches him to manipulate fear and shadows, and which also inspires him to think of things outside Illuvatar’s design. But death is something different – it is presented as a gift, but one filled with grief – which is another major theme of Tolkien that I’ll get into later when I talk about Gandalf…

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  9. Doug,Oh, to have the time and resources to read Tolkien at one’s leisure! I have read <>The Unfinished Tales<> (fascinating proto-Tolkien!) and <>The Book of Lost Tales, Parts 1 and 2<>.I’m quite familiar with S discussion of death being Eru’s gift to Man, and of death in relation to Dwarves and Elves. Yet Tolkien wasn’t satisfied with S and was reworking it at the time of his death. Even though he completed “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” by 1959, those ideas didn’t make it into S. I wonder if he hoped to do so, and perhaps blend the concepts in some way.I wish I was smart enough to be a Tolkien scholar and could make a living off of it!I look forward to reading your article on Gandalf.

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